The ghost of permits past: How permit for Luqa Lidl has cost Malta more than €300,000

LONG READ | Former Planning Authority auditor Joe Falzon, a relentless scourge of the planning mayhem under the Gonzi administration, has been vindicated on a report denouncing the approval of Lidl’s ODZ supermarket in Luqa. James Debono revists the planning scandal

The Luqa Lidl scandal: the Planning Authority has now been ordered to pay more than €300,000 in compensation to the former land owners
The Luqa Lidl scandal: the Planning Authority has now been ordered to pay more than €300,000 in compensation to the former land owners

Taxpayers will have to fork out €331,295 in compensation after the Planning Authority was found to have acted in a discriminatory manner many moons ago.

The case involving the Cutajar family, which was this week awarded compensation, reels back to a time when Charles Polidano was granted a permit to build the Luqa Lidl supermarket.

The family had been repeatedly denied permission by the PA to build a garden centre on the ODZ land. However, after Polidano acquired the tract of land at a knock-off price as a result of its undevelopable status, the construction magnate was then granted a permit to build a supermarket.

READ ALSO: Former landowners compensated over Ċaqnu's Lidl supermarket

It was a MaltaToday probe on permits issued for Lidl’s ODZ supermarkets that back in 2007 revealed how the Planning Authority had ignored the negative recommendations of the Civil Aviation Department and the Malta International Airport when assessing the Luqa supermarket application, which lies in proximity to the airport’s runway.

As a reminder of this bizarre decision, people parking their cars at the supermarket’s car park are still met by a sign warning them that their health and safety is ‘highly at risk in the event of an accident involving low flying planes’.

Enter Joe Falzon, the PA’s scourge

Former planning auditor Joe Falzon
Former planning auditor Joe Falzon

In April 2009, writing in the annual report of the Planning Authority, internal auditor Joe Falzon revealed that he was investigating the building of another ODZ supermarket by the same developer in Luqa. 

Falzon’s relentless investigations, which initially were based on the input of architect and former PN official Carmel Cacopardo, had already led to the mass resignation of the planning commission responsible for the approval of another ODZ Lidl supermarket in Safi.

Falzon started his investigation on the Luqa supermarket after the original owner of the land complained that his requests to develop the same land was turned down on three occasions by the PA. 

After concluding the report, Falzon did not mince his words describing the permit as “completely irregular”. 

Speaking to MaltaToday at the time, Falzon said the case highlighted the preferential treatment accorded to Polidano. 

“While in the case of the previous applicant the objections presented by the Civil Aviation Department led to its rejection, the same objections were dismissed simply because other developments exist in the area,” Falzon had said. 

PA board misled?

The planning authority had initiated an internal inquiry into the Luqa Lidl permit after Joe Falzon flagged what he considered was discriminatory behaviour
The planning authority had initiated an internal inquiry into the Luqa Lidl permit after Joe Falzon flagged what he considered was discriminatory behaviour

In his report Falzon had called on MEPA to commence disciplinary action against those employees of the Planning Directorate responsible for recommending the approval of this application.  

Falzon had also called on MEPA to seriously consider referring the case to the appropriate authorities "for possible criminal responsibility."  

The case was referred to an internal inquiry board composed of Planning Board members Joe Tabone Jiacono, Charles Bonnici and Joseph Farrugia. 

The report centred on the role of case officer Norbert Gerada and team manager Silvio Farrugia who were interviewed during proceedings by the board.  

The investigation revealed the Planning Directorate had asked for guidance from the PA board in a closed meeting that was held before it recommended the project for approval.

Strangely, the inquiry board, felt that it was “incorrect” for them to enter into the merits of this particular application because in an internal meeting in November 2006, the PA board was “inclined to accept the project despite the serious objections against it and the pertinent policies.” 

The inquiry limited itself to “the inconsistency between the information presented to the board and the project as approved by the Development Control Commission upon the recommendation of the Directorate.” 

For while the board was “positively inclined towards the project”, it did so on the basis of plans which did not correspond to the approved project. 

It emerged that in his meeting with the MEPA board, Farrugia, as team manager, had recommended the demolition of a garage so as to move the supermarket building in a way that only 10.3 metres would extend beyond the existing building line.  

But the board established that the final drawings subsequently approved by the Development Control Commission showed the new building extending 23.5 metres from the building line.  

"Did the directorate have the right to recommend the approval of a layout so different from the one presented to the MEPA board without going back to the MEPA board?" asked the board of inquiry.

Call for disciplinary action  

The Lidl supermarket in Luqa was built outside the development zone
The Lidl supermarket in Luqa was built outside the development zone

The report concluded that unspecified disciplinary action was to be taken with regards to "the case officer and team manager responsible for this project".  

But the board found no "evidence of collusion which could necessitate police investigation". 

Falzon had described the inquiry board’s conclusions as “very disappointing” insisting the case merited a police investigation.

Falzon had told MaltaToday that it was impossible to find any evidence of corruption simply by looking at the files. “I am not saying that there was corruption. I am simply saying that this case should be investigated as there is enough evidence that policies have not been abided to,” he had said.

The inquiry also failed to establish why three permits on the same plot of land were previously refused while the Lidl supermarket was approved. “I still believe that the original applicant was discriminated against,” Falzon had said. 

The inquiry had concluded that no discrimination took place as no buildings were foreseen on this part of the site in the Lidl permit.

But Falzon had pointed out that the permit granted to Polidano envisaged development on an even greater area than that foreseen in the previous permits. “In three cases, they interpreted the policies correctly to turn down the application. How come these same policies were interpreted differently in this case?” asked Falzon back in 2009.

The aftermath: refusal and promotion 

The Planning Authority was ordered to pay more than €300,000 in compensation by the court
The Planning Authority was ordered to pay more than €300,000 in compensation by the court

Ironically, in 2015 the PA turned down a permit for shading canopies, solar panels and a play area in the car park of the Lidl supermarket in Luqa on the basis of the objections by the Civil Aviation Department.  

It was never explained how the case officer and team manager blamed by the inquiry for misleading the board were punished. But immediately following the change in government in 2013, Silvio Farrugia, a close collaborator of new PA CEO Johann Buttigieg, was promoted as the Planning Directorate's new deputy director following an internal call.

Government sources at the time justified this appointment arguing that under the previous administration Farrugia had been turned into a convenient scapegoat for decisions taken at higher levels.

Farrugia was made responsible for ensuring that "all policy and local plan revisions are carried out coherently and within the established timeframes".

The court decision this week has vindicated the stand Falzon took back then that the PA’s behaviour was discriminatory.

Unfortunately, it is taxpayers who will have to pick up the bill.

Read this interview from 2009 with Joe Falzon: No more ‘nirrangaw’

A timeline

April 1999: PA turns down Jimmy Fsadni’s application for basement garage, garden centre, parking area and retail outlet

May 2005: PA turns down Leonard Cutajar’s permit for flower nursery

April 2007: PA approves Charles Polidano’s application for a Lidl supermarket despite objections by the Civil Aviation Department

April 2009: PA auditor Joe Falzon announces investigation of permit issued to Polidano

October 2009: Falzon’s investigation concludes that permit was “completely irregular” and requests investigation on culpability of PA officials recommending it for approval over possible criminal collusion

December 2009: Inquiry board censors case officer and team manager for misleading planning board but found no evidence of criminal collusion or discrimination against former owners

June 2021: Cutajar family awarded €331,295 by law courts as compensation in “clear case of distinct treatment”